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Just over a month after Banned Books Week 2022, the risk to literature has intensified. Depending on the outcome of the US midterms, moves from Republican lawmakers to silence certain books could take a firmer grip.
On library shelves in the USA, certain books have fallen prey to challenges and subsequent localised bannings. There’s a blank space where Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye used to sit in many Florida schools (and beyond), while Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay has been banned in a septuplet of states. The incredible Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, an interweaving of narratives that crosses generations and continents, has been carted away on the librarian’s trolley in areas of Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas.
Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. A recent report from PEN America found there were over 2,500 book bans across 32 states between July 2021 and June 2022. And where America goes, the rest of the world often follows.
In the autumn issue of Index on Censorship, we explored book bannings in the USA and the growing movement to keep literature free.
George M Johnson, author of one of the most banned books in the USA, wrote about how being banned gave them a hunger to write more, to deal with the racism and sexual identity that they had no resources to tackle as a child. We spoke to Kings Books in Tacoma, Washington State, where a monthly banned books club sets free the literature which has been erased from the shelves of school libraries and classrooms.
“You end up talking about topics that don’t normally come up in conversation because banned books cover those controversial topics [including] the clichéd things you don’t talk about in public,” the club’s co-ordinator David Raff said.
This group puts freedom to read into practice, and it is not alone. There’s the protest against book censorship in classrooms, where students in Texas staged a read-in at the Capitol Rotunda, devouring books on a Republican lawmaker’s list of condemned titles. Students in Pennsylvania stood up against books being removed from their library. Parents in Texas and Florida organised protests. Against the rising tide of book bannings, even calls to burn books which echo the darkest moments in history, people are resisting.
The big question around these book bannings is: why? Why would parents or lawmakers seek to ban The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hate U Give, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Even the stunning children’s picture book by Jessica Love, Julian is a Mermaid, does not escape the censor’s wrath in areas of Florida and Pennsylvania.
Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. As the latest American Library Association (ALA) report puts it, the challenges are often led by conservative groups to shut down materials which “address racism, gender and sexual identity”.
The most-banned books, compiled by PEN America, paint this picture clearly. George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue is banned in multiple areas of 13 states, including New York and Washington. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison racks up bans in 12 states. And Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir, is missing from shelves in multiple school districts in 15 states, landing the unenviable spot as most-banned book.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that allowed parents to search a list of books available in schools and to object, specifically referencing Lawn Boy as containing passages of “paedophilia”. Meanwhile Moms for Liberty was one of the groups that spearheaded the campaign for All Boys Aren’t Blue to be banned, tweeting: “They [school board members] want to rob children of their innocence.”
I spoke to Nick Higgins, the chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, where the Books Unbanned project supports young people across the USA facing book challenges or outright bans in their communities. Brooklyn might not be at the sharp end of book bannings, but they’ve extended their relatively censorship-free status to allow young people across the whole country to access their catalogue of half a million eBooks and audiobooks using a free library card – whether the books are banned or not. Higgins says the library wants everyone to have access to a well-maintained, diverse, broad spectrum of ideas.
“This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society,” he said. “You are encountered with ideas that you agree with, and ideas that you don’t agree with, and the diversity of a community is something that makes us richer, stronger, more empathetic to one another, and is really necessary for a healthy democratic society.”
The recent spate of book challenges and bans, he said, is a movement to silence particular voices and lock away those narratives.
“What that says to a young person […] trying to seek out voices that sound like their own, characters that speak to them – and they find adults in their communities taking those stories off the shelves and hiding them away – it says to that young person that they don’t belong in that community, they have no place in that community and their voice doesn’t matter,” he said.
And the library hasn’t stopped with the Books Unbanned project. There’s a virtual banned books club, most recently discussing Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe with teen librarian Jes G. Young adult interns also formed the Teen Intellectual Freedom Council, creating a network of young people. They meet remotely with a group of teens in Austin, Texas – the state that tops the list in number of bans and where in 2021 a bill passed prohibiting lessons where “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex”. One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Matt Krause, followed up by demanding that libraries tell him if they carried any of the 850 books on his hit list.
“It’s a troubling development in this fight, where lawmakers are getting involved in basically doing the work of professional librarians, are doing the work of professional educators, and making the case that because they in some way, shape or form are allocating funds to support this institution, then they have the say on what is actually presented on the shelves or in the classroom,” Higgins said.
The #FReadom campaign in Texas is another grassroots effort. Sparked in response to Matt Krause’s list of condemned books, #FReadom started life as a Twitter hashtag where people were asked to tweet about diverse books across a day of action. After a huge success, the campaign morphed into a website, alongside behind-the-scenes work to support librarians facing book challenges. The goal is to uplift and support librarians, as well as providing resources for those who want to speak up. I spoke to retired librarian and one of the founders of #FReadom, Carolyn Foote.
“Obviously there’s a hunger for fighting back against censorship and fighting for intellectual freedom,” Foote told me. “So many librarians are scared to speak up. And so I’ve kind of become the spokesperson for our group because I am retired. I don’t have an institution keeping an eye on what I’m saying.”
Book challenges, she said, are extremely isolating for librarians. But the empathy and support the campaign musters is designed to give people hope, and to remind people who librarians are.
When Matt Krause’s list of books came out, she remembers how glaringly obvious it was that the target was books about race, authors of colour and LGBTQ+ topics.
“We felt like it was so important to speak up on [behalf of our] more marginalised kids or more vulnerable kids, because it was their stories being removed from the shelf,” she said.
When America’s bookshelves are emptied of very specific books, everyone loses. The young readers, the librarians, the teachers and the communities that miss out on important and varied conversations. Uncomfortable topics are buried instead of addressed, brilliant books become taboo. As Carolyn Foote said to me, “Libraries are about truth telling.”
But while the book ban figures increase and a new threat looms, the movement to unban books shows no signs of slowing down.
An earlier modified version of this article was originally published on The Bookseller.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Books have long been objects of contention, criticised for spreading ideas which go against the status quo. They are removed from libraries and bookshops, burned, banned and vandalised while writers are attacked, threatened, imprisoned. These actions are nothing new, yet the importance of preserving our freedom to read is more important now than ever.
Freedom to read is at the centre of Banned Books Week, an initiative which has sought to challenge censorship on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing together literary communities – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
The initiative was launched in the USA in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools. Since then, it has sought to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Each year sees an exciting strand of events, readings list, games and activities designed to get people thinking about books that have been banned throughout history, and are still causing offense today.
As the 2020 Banned Books Week comes to a close, we have a chance to reflect on the impact the initiative has had over the past 38 years, and consider the work we still need to do to ensure everyone is free to read.
Censoring literature is nothing new. It has a long and dark history and has been exercised by governments, political parties and religious groups for centuries. Book burning, which has been recorded as early as the 7th century BCE, and proliferated under the Nazi party in Germany in 1933, is emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence some aspect of prevailing culture.
Today’s methods of censorship remain prevalent yet differ in style. Political leaders use legal methods to silence or prohibit writing which paints themselves and their parties in an unpleasant light – techniques not so different to the vexatious lawsuits used to silence journalists. Academic textbooks are rewritten to paint recent historical events in a very different light, and a favourite illustrated bear has long been banned to protect the ego of other fragile leaders.
As well as these more blatant signs of government censorship, literature is still challenged today. Some of the most canonical works of the 20th century have famously been challenged – including The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which this year sees the 60th anniversary of its uncensored publication in the UK. But it is children’s books that cause a particular stir, such as And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell which tells the true story of two male penguins who create a family together and was subsequently banned in US schools and libraries for depicting same-sex marriage and adoption.
While this year’s Banned Books Week took a different shape from previous years, we had the pleasure of hearing a number of writers speak about their experiences of being silenced, censored or simply refused a platform. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resultant global Black Lives Matter protests, it has been clearer than ever before that the voices of some are prioritised to the exclusion of others.
In an online session on 29 September, Urvashi Butalia spoke to poet Rachel Long, and authors Elif Shafak and Jacqueline Woodson about what ‘freedom’ means in the culture of traditional publishing, and how writers today can change the future of literature. During the event, Shafak defended freedom of speech and spoke about her experience of seeing her works of fiction brought into the courtroom – “it was very surreal to me. Art needs freedom, even though it may be harmful in the eyes of authorities.”
Shafak’s comments harked back to those made by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship. At the event, Morrison spoke of her novel Song of Solomon being banned at a prison after the warden expressed fear that it might stir the incarcerated to riot. An acoustical lapse led Morrison to speculate as to whether the real fear was of the inmates incitement to “riot” or “write” – asking, which would ultimately be the most dangerous?
While authorities and governments fear literary works that are seen to challenge them, we are reminded this Banned Books Week of the importance of free artistic expression and of literature’s power to challenge even the most powerful, oppressive forces. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Leading international freedom of expression organisation Index on Censorship has joined the Banned Books Week Coalition as the first international member of this US-based alliance.
Banned Books Week was launched in the United States in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in attempts to have books removed or otherwise restricted in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association, a key member of the coalition.
Each year a host of events are held across the United States such as author readings in bookshops, libraries, and schools, as well as panel discussions and webinars.
“Index is excited to be joining the coalition as the first non-US member. We have been publishing work by censored writers from around the world for 45 years and – given all that is happening on the global political stage – it feels more important than ever to be highlighting censorship and demonstrating just what it means when books are banned,” said Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship.
The theme of this year’s Banned Books Week will be “Our Right to Read.” Index plans to host a number of events in the UK during Banned Books Week, which runs from September 24-September 30, 2017, as well as participating in events in the United States.
“We are very excited to have the Index on Censorship join the coalition,” said Charles Brownstein, Chair of the Banned Books Week Coalition and Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. “Their work not only aligns with our mission, but will bring an international perspective and awareness to our annual celebration of the freedom to read.”
Other members of the coalition include American Booksellers for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, Association of American University Presses, Authors’ Guild, Dramatist Legal Defense Fund, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, People For the American Way, PEN America, and Project Censored.
Notes to editors
For more information, please contact [email protected][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1496677220501-32171f66-62cb-4″ taxonomies=”4513, 5844″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
What’s it like to be an author of a banned or challenged book? How can librarians support authors who find themselves in this situation? To mark Banned Books Week, Vicky Baker, deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine, will chair an online discussion with three authors on 29 September, followed by a Q&A.
It is free to join, although attendees must register in advance.
The contributors are:
The webinar has been arranged by Sage Publications, in conjunction with the American Library Association.
When: Thursday 29 September, 4pm GMT / 11 EST
Tickets: Free, registration required.